KONYAVO, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarian forces with night-vision goggles appear to be winning an extraordinary fight over thieves seeking to make off with this year's lucrative cherry harvest.
For many years, the thieves had little trouble raiding Bulgarian cherry farms at night. But that was before the "cherry war" by police and border guards. This season, police say, few thieves have got away with the fruit in a poor western region known as Bulgaria's "cherry orchard," and the farmers are feeling optimistic.
Sylvia Hristova, whose family relies almost entirely on cherry production, said their income appears safe from thieves this spring and she is overjoyed. "The cherries are our bread and butter, after all," she said.
Before the government-funded battle began, thieves raided the orchards across the region at night, picking most of the fruit and making easy money by selling it the next day at the markets in nearby cities.
Farmers could find no way of stopping them.
Two years ago, Plamen Momchilov, a 46-year-old farmer, was killed by cherry thieves as he tried to keep them out of his orchard. Later, nine thieves were arrested and confessed to beating Momchilov to death with sticks and shovel handles. They were sentenced to 99 years in prison but are currently free pending an appeal.
The attack stirred outrage in the region, prompting authorities to impose this season's tough measures aimed at protecting farmers' property. The police and border guards are using night-vision equipment to keep cherry farms under surveillance and to protect them from thieves.
The sleepy village of Konyavo is one of the beneficiaries. Home to 1,000 people, they live in a poor area near Macedonia's border in a green valley between hills of the Konyavska Mountain. It is one of 30 villages in the Kyustendil region, where the fruit provides a livelihood for farmers. About 6,500 tons of fruit are picked in the region every season, with the bulk being exported to Germany and Italy.
During this cherry season, which lasts from mid-May to the end of June, the region has turned into a war zone with roadblocks in the outskirts of the villages and police searching all vehicles for stolen fruit. The control checkpoints are staffed from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., after which border police with night-vision equipment guard the area.
Katya Tabachka, a police spokeswoman in Kyustendil, said the normal work of border police has not suffered because of the additional assignment. "Border guards are working extra time for which they will be compensated," she said.
Tabachka also said this season no major thefts of cherries have been reported in the region.
"There were just three minor incidents with people carrying small amounts of cherries for which they had no proof that they were legally bought," she said in an interview.
Many farmers have welcomed the intervention and hope such security will root out plundering for good.
"We are investing a lot of hard work all year long just to see the fruits of this work disappear," said Stoyan Stoev, proudly pointing at his trees with ripe cherries.
"I wouldn't mind if they stole a few pounds, but instead of picking them properly they hack off entire branches damaging the trees and affecting next year's production."